John Barnes, Historian

Rear Admiral Thomas Adair (1861 – 1928)

Adair had an unusual career. Effectively it fell into three phases. His service as a naval officer came to an untimely end with the loss of the battleship Monarch, which ran aground during the 1906 naval manoeuvres and could not be salved. Found guilty of hazarding his ship, Adair was reprimanded and dismissed his ship. Retirement followed, but he was promptly offered employment as the head of the gun department of one of the great armament firms. He served there for the next twelve years, offering perhaps as much good service to the state as he would have done had he served his country in war. He successfully sought election to the House of Commons as a Unionist MP in December 1918 and relinquished his position at Beardmores. However, he found himself out of sympathy with much that the Coalition did, not least in reaching an Irish settlement which he felt was a surrender to rebellion. He left the Commons in the autumn of 1922.

Thomas Benjamin Stratton Adair was born at Gosport on 6 November 1861. He came of a fighting family. His father was General Sir Charles William Adair, who commanded the Royal marine Corps from 1878 to 1883. His brothers included General Sir William Adair, who was Adjutant General of the Royal Marines 1907-11 and Admiral Sir Charles Adair. A great uncle had been killed aboard the Victory at Trafalgar.

Thomas entered the Navy in July 1874 and two years later went to sea as a Midshipman in Undaunted, screw frigate, flagship on the East Indies station. Promoted to Sub Lieutenant in November 1880, he was made Lieutenant on 6 May 1882. In passing for Liutenant Adair took three first class certificates and was awarded the Goodenough medal for 1881. This was awareded to the officer passing top in gunnery provided that he also had a first class in seamanship.

Appointed to the armour-plated corvette Orion, Adair was seconded to the naval flotiila on the Sweetwater canal during the Egyptian War of 1882 and was awarded the Egyptian medal and the Khedive’s Bronze Star.

In September 1883 he was selected to specialize in gunnery and joined HMS Excellent where Captain ‘Jacky’ Fisher was in command. Going on to further study at Greenwich, he won the £80 prize offered to gunnery lieutenants for the year 1884. An appointment as gunnery officer of the battleship Monarch followed. After service on other vessels he was appointed to the staff of Excellent in 1890. On promotion to Commander on 1 January 1894, he was appointed to the Naval Ordnance Department. In the spring of 1895 he joined Crescent, flagship of the C-in-C on the America and West Indies station. He was promoted to Captain on 31 December 1899. 1

From 1900 to 1902 he served as a member of the Navy's Ordnance Committee. In September 1902, he assumed command of the second class protected cruiser Gladiator[ and was appointed in command of Montagu, one of the latest battleships in the fleet, in September 1904. On 30 May 1906, during naval manoeuvres, he ran the battleship hard aground on the Shutter rock off Lundy Island in thick fog. Despite three months' effort the ship could not be salved. Adair's Court-Martial was held on H.M.S. Victory from 15 August and concluded on 20 August. He was found guilty of negligence, severely reprimanded and dismissed his ship. In his book Whispers from the Fleet, Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher G. F. M. Cradock referred to "the regret felt throughout the Navy for the one man who suffered - a victim of unexpected circumstances."2 In the following March Adair left the active list and, having done the necessary years of service was granted the rank of Rear Admiral retired on 2 December 1908.3

He had already taken up an appointment as Superintendent of the gun department at Messrs William Beardmore and Co at the Parkland Steelworks in Glasgow in 1907.4 His technical expertise was of great value as the Dreadnought fleet expanded and he remained in post throughout the 1914-18 war. It may well have been no coincidence that the firm, which completed the dreadnoughts Conqueror and Benbow before the war and later built the Ramillies and Argus, the first aircraft carrier with a full length flight deck, during it, should have diversified into the manufacture of heavy naval guns, such as the BL 9.2 inch, the Mk IX–X and the BL 15 inch Mk I. He relinquished his post on election to the House of Commons.

He had won the Shettleston division of Glasgow as a Unionist in the General Election of December 1918. During the campaign Lloyd George sent him a message pledging an adequate supply of houses for the working classes at fair and reasonable rents, a point that was clearly material to Adair’s campaign.5 Once in the House, although he made good use of Parliamentary questions, he largely confined his speeches to constituency and naval issues until the possibility of the Irish Treaty came into view. He was a powerful advocate of the case for marriage allowances to be paid to naval officers and had the satisfaction of knowing that the Admiralty had come round to that opinion even though the small sum they had included in their estimates for 1922 was dropped.6 The need for the Navy to have an aim of its own was another persistent theme, first articulated when he moved a token reduction in the Naval vote on 10 December 1919 to signal his concern that the navy had not resumed control of the Naval air service and demanding a statement of future policy in regard to the Navy to allay the current unrest amongst the men and unhappiness among officers about the uncertainty with which they were faced. When the First Lord made it clear that he would not stay in his position if he felt the navy was suffering from the activities of the Air Board, Adair withdrew his motion, but he continued to advocate that the Royal Navy should have its own air arm, a view which again found increasing acceptance in the Admiralty. He had left the Commons by the time the issue was investigated by the Salisbury Committee and he cannot have been satisfied with the compromise that was put in place. But he did not live to see the Fleet Air Arm recreated.

He was more of a dove than a hawk on the need for new battleships, believing that it would be wrong to risk a new arms race, and he was delighted with the results of the Washington Conference. Personally, he would have been satisfied not to have built any battleships at all, but on the question of Nelson and Rodney he deferred to the expert Admiralty view. However, he was at pains to make it clear that aircraft carriers should be at the heart of the modern fleet and that the nature of those ships engaged in its protection would be defined in ongoing competition with the remaining naval powers. It seems probable that he thought new battle cruisers would be required, given the vast distances the fleet would have to cover. The final argument he made consistently was the need for the dominions to make a larger contribution to the Imperial fleet.

His maiden speech, however, was made on the Housing and Town Planning (Scotland) Bill on 5 May 1919 where he backed the Government’s proposals to deal with the urgent need to provide working class housing in Glasgow and elsewhere in Scotland, necessarily on the ambitious scale identified, and argued the case for strengthening the ministerial team in the Scottish Office to ensure that the process was driven forward. Subsequently he moved an amendment to the Housing Bill on 26 May 1919 to make the Local Government Board the arbiter of fair rents, a move that was rejected. He continued throughout his brief parliamentary career to be vigilant on all matters concerned with his constituency and with Glasgow. He was particularly concerned that rents should remain at a reasonable level.

When the Commons were debating the restoration of prewar labur practices, Adair made a thought-provoking intervention. While accepting that this must be done, he made plain his concern about the harm they could do to the country’s prosperity if they were used in a damaging way. He was speaking from his experience at Beardmore’s and he wanted the abuse of piece working, whether on the part of owners or men, treated as an offence against the law. He suggested also the limitation of dividends, although not profits. The latter should be ploughed back into the firm, and once a sufficient reserve had been built up, used to extend employment and enable the men to share in the profit made. Although he pursued the question of dividend limitation on more than one occasion, he got little help from the Government.

He was also a believer in the employment of women: “I am going to speak from practical experience of women in a factory and I am speaking for the women. I believe that a vast number of them will welcome this new Clause if this Amendment is incorporated. During the War we in Glasgow started a shell factory, which was run entirely by young women. I am not dealing with married women, because they are only a very small percentage of the women employed. It is the young women who are ready and eligible for work, not only anxious to take up new trades, such as engineering, but would gladly do such work under a two-shift system, as is proposed. At the end of the War this shop, which had been running two years with women, aided by one or two skilled men, had to cease work because there was no further demand for the shells they were making. We endeavoured to find new work for these women, and we found it in small metal valve-gear, and the women were put on to it at once. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers' trade union in the district immediately took exception, and said that if we pursued this work by women they would call out their men, and that would compel the shop being closed down. The women were up in arms about this, and they went so far as to persuade the specialised men in the shop to disregard the order of their trade union. I am happy to say that the men did disregard their trade union order to come out, and the shop is running to-day. But my point is this: Only half the girls are working in that shop who might be working if we had two shifts, and with this Amendment I strongly advocate the now Clause on behalf of the women.”7

That he was prepared to be a rebel was evident early on when he was one of those who helped defeat the Government over the issue of foreign pilots in October 1919. However, he was not really to be ranked amongst the Diehards until Ireland became an issue. Then an increasing amount of his attention was given to questioning government policy from his first outburst on the subject in 1920 to the last intervention he made in the House which was about the delays to paying awards and pensions to the Irish Constabulary. On these matters he was clearly aligned with the Diehards, for reasons that were expressed most succinctly when he spoke against the second reading of the Irish Agreement Bills, “that is the great Imperial strategical question which is included within this Bill. We are setting up a Free State with a Navy, Army and Air Force absolutely under the control of that Government. This is contrary to the wisdom of every great statesman since the days of William Pitt, including the right hon. Gentleman who made a speech at Caernarvon (Mr. Lloyd George) at the end of 1920. On those grounds alone, I have refused to vote for the ratification of this Treaty. That is an attitude from which I can never depart…” He voted against both the second and third readings as he had earlier voted against the loyal address welcoming the Treaty on 16 December 1921. He remained angry about the consequent violence in the south and concerned about the future of those Irish men who had served the Crown. When the National Constitutional Association honoured the Diehards at a luncheon on 5 April 1922, he was clearly fully identified with their cause.8 That cost him the support of his Unionist Association and he was in effect deselected before the 1922 election. He had attended the Carlton Club meeting and had voted for Pretyman’s amendment. He retired from the Commons when the election was called. Subsequently he gave public support to the Dyestuffs Act and made it clear that he was a protectionist. Indeed, while still in the House, he had asked whether it was not possible to do something about unemployment by policies designed to make Britain self-sufficient in food.

However he made no attempt to return to the Commons and died in a nursing home in Glasgow on 12 August 1928. The funeral took place at Brookwood on the 15th. A relatively full obituary appeared in The Times on 14 August 1928.

1 The London Gazette: No 27150 p.3. 2 January, 1900

2 Whispers from the Fleet. Gieves, 1908. p.366

3 His full service record is in ADM 196/42

4 Who’s Who

5 Times 10 December 1918 p.10

6 As well as contributions in the Commons, he wrote a full statement of the case for them and a better pay deal for the navy to The Times on 4 August 1921 (published on the 12th)

7 Hansard 30 November 1920 col.1167

8 The Times 6 April 1922 p.6